10:35 AM

Universities Snatch Up Unused Cable For High-Speed Networks

The most ambitious and high-profile of these endeavors is the National LambdaRail, a large fiber infrastructure capable of connecting more than 25 U.S. cities at speeds in multiples of 10 Gbps.

Although precious few companies are in a position to deploy and manage their own business networks, educational and governmental research institutions have bandwidth and performance requirements that go beyond what commercial network providers can supply at reasonable prices. The retail cost for enough bandwidth to handle the data transfers needed for research and experimentation would bankrupt most institutions.

To avoid retail costs, universities and nonprofits have formed consortia to purchase access to dark fiber--fiber that's in place but not being used--and build high-speed metropolitan, regional, and national optical networks. In addition to 10-Gbps IP network connections, these fiber paths can carry non-IP traffic, a capability few conventional Internet service providers offer. Even better for researchers, the collapse of the telecom market meant much of this fiber could be purchased at deeply discounted rates.

UW-Madison gives data link the old college try.

UW-Madison gives data link the old college try.

Photo by Morry Gash/AP
The most ambitious and high-profile of these endeavors is the National LambdaRail, a large fiber infrastructure capable of connecting more than 25 U.S. cities at speeds in multiples of 10 Gbps. Dense wavelength division multiplexing lets LambdaRail place multiple wavelengths (referred to as lambdas) on each fiber pair, effectively providing each customer with its own wavelength equivalent to 10 Gbps of bandwidth and allowing network provisioning to multiple customers on a single fiber pair.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we've lit the fiber section from our city to a major network peering point in Chicago with a DWDM optical link that carries our Internet2 traffic over one of these 10-Gbps connections. Internet2, an alternative to the commodity Internet, links research and instructional networks at higher speeds and is used for exploring and testing next-generation applications that would require this connectivity.

Following the collaborative investment model of LambdaRail, regional and metropolitan partnerships have sprung up to fill out connectivity needs in localized markets. In our neck of the woods, the Northern Tier Network Consortium aims to extend the fiber infrastructure across the northern states, from Wisconsin to Washington and all points in between, offering extraordinary network connectivity to educational and governmental institutions, communities, and nonprofits along that route.

Other examples are the Pacific Northwest Gigapop and the Boreas-Net, a regional consortium acquiring private fiber links between various connecting points in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois. These setups give university partners high-speed connections between campuses, as well as backup routes to Internet2 and other network providers.

The University of Wisconsin system has acquired fiber from the Starlight PoP in Chicago, through Wisconsin along Interstate 94 to the border of Minnesota. That fiber also will be made available to the Northern Tier Network Consortium and Boreas-Net.

Why Not Business?

Companies could purchase regional or national unused fiber to connect to a geographically distant backup data center. With some good partnerships, multiple companies or institutions could acquire fiber together and share the resource using DWDM equipment. This connectivity also could be leveraged to connect business partners that interchange large data sets, such as customer relationship data.

Just 10 years ago, the University of Wisconsin at Madison was connected to the Internet via WiscNet--a public-service ISP and partner of UW-Madison--using a half-dozen T1 pipes. Although the traffic included research and educational data, it was only marginally distinguishable from general traffic in network load. But by 2000, our connection to Chicago had grown to a full OC-12 ATM (622- Mbps) link, partitioned out with circuits for transit to Internet1, collaborative peering partners, and custom research connections.

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